Yoga is known to be a holistic practice that improves mind-body health and well-being. A regular, authentic yoga session will consist of yoga asanas, pranayama, and meditation or relaxation. Of this, pranayama, known as breathing techniques or breathing exercises are practiced at the beginning or end of a yoga session, depending on the type (heating, cooling or balancing pranayama).
Pranayama is also the fourth limb of eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga (after yama, niyama and asana). It is also an integral part of the Hatha Yoga style of yoga which draws on the mind-body connection with the help of breath. Regular pranayama practice has a range of health benefits that include better focus and concentration, better functioning of the circulatory and respiratory system, release of toxins, and the free flow of prana (free flow). When prana is flowing freely, the Kundalini energy (dormant energy resting at the base of the spine) within us is also stimulated. Of all these benefits, pranayama contributes effectively towards improving lung health and lung capacity.
Research on how Pranayama improves lung health
Several studies have delved deeply into the impact of pranayama on lung health. One such study found that pranayama improves respiratory endurance and performance of competitive swimmers. Results showed a significant improvement in the number of strokes per breath in the swimmers, which shows that pranayama helps to enhance respiratory endurance in competitive swimmers. Suggestions were made that pranayama for 30-minutes a day along with routine physical exercises for five days a week, decreases airway resistance, increases respiratory muscle endurance, and number of strokes per breath, possibly, through better autonomic reactivity, oxygen diffusion and reduced anxiety in competitive swimmers.
In another study, it was found that after two months of yoga practice, practitioners showed an improvement in pulmonary functions in healthy individuals and in prevention of respiratory diseases in future. The results said, “These beneficial effects of pranayama can be used as an adjuvant therapy for many respiratory diseases. The daily practice could also be parts of physical fitness and lifestyle modification programs in maintaining better physical and mental health. Hence, it can be said that pranayama improves respiratory breathing capacity by increasing chest wall expansion and forced expiratory lung volumes.”
Furthermore, pranayama balances the nervous system, that is, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. Breath enables us to immediately relax the autonomic system, and pranayama practice may allow bronchial-dilatation by correcting abnormal breathing patterns and reducing muscle tone of respiratory muscles. Therefore, results suggested yoga can improve pulmonary function and prevent respiratory diseases in the future in healthy individuals.
Another research team has also concluded that pranayama is a useful adjunct treatment that can be effective in rehabilitation programs for individuals with Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Diseases (COPD). Results showed that after three months of practice, pranayama can improve the subjective health, disease severity, and functional status for COPD patients.
What are the benefits of pranayama for lung health?
Breathing is an involuntary function that we do every minute of everyday, yet, it is an action that can be controlled through pranayama. ‘Prana’ means life force, which is breath, and ‘ayama’ means ‘extension’. Therefore, pranayama is extending and controlling the breath. It has several benefits that contribute towards improving lung and respiratory health.
Improve muscle strength
Regular pranayama practice improves the strength of the expiratory and inspiratory muscles. When we control the breath, we are engaging various muscles in the lungs and respiratory tract and they are subsequently getting stronger. For example, when doing Kapal Bhati (Frontal Lobe Cleansing) or Bhastrika (Bellows Breath), short, quick and powerful strokes of exhalation contract and engage the diaphragmatic muscles (as well as abdominal muscles). This way, we are making full use of the diaphragmatic muscles.
Clears the respiratory system
During pranama practices, like Kapal Bhati, Bhastrika and Nadi Shodhana (Alternate Nostril Breathing), we are removing secretion from the bronchial tree and leftover particles and toxins from the respiratory passage and alveoli. This makes room for cleaner air and a clearer respiratory system. Regular pranayama also improves blood circulation, cleanses the blood and reduces blood pressure.
Reduces stress and promotes well-being
Pranayama has a strong impact on reducing stress and balancing the nervous system. When we are more relaxed, our breath is also automatically slower and deeper. When we breathe consciously, we are making full use of our muscles, especially the diaphragm, which is one of the major muscles involved in breathing rhythmically. This in turn has an impact on stress levels. When we continuously breathe rhythmically we keep stress levels lower and stay in the present. Furthermore, this improves mental clarity and focus, better emotional health and well-being. It even impacts areas of the brain that are responsible for emotional activity and awareness. Quality of sleep improves and, in fact, even while sleeping we are breathing better. With lower stress levels, digestion is also better and there are lesser chances of gastric issues.
Pranayama practices for improved lung health
Abdominal breathing and full yogic breathing
These two practices help us breathe fully and completely into the diaphragm and abdomen. During full yogic breathing, we are expanding the chest completely and exhaling completely. This makes the muscles work strongly and keeps them engaged. Apart from also strengthening the core and reducing stress, abdominal and full yogic breathing will lower blood pressure, slow down the heart rate and improve mindfulness.
Alternate nostril breathing
Known as Nadi Shodhana, this balancing pranayama is a wonderful way to end your yoga session. When practiced with Khumbak, which is retention, you will engage all the muscles involved in breathing, from the clavicular to the abdominal. This breathing exercise removes toxins and unwanted particles from the nasal passage, airways and blood stream, cleansing the system effectively. It’s also extremely effective in reducing stress and balancing the nervous system.
Originally a cleansing practice (part of the Shat Kriyas), this practice is extremely effective in clearing mucus from the air passages, relieving congestion, reducing bloating and improving lung capacity. It is very invigorating and refreshing as it energizes the mind and body, releases fatigue and sluggishness.
Apart from this, practices like Bhastrika and Ujjayi (Oceans Breath) are also effective as they help clear the system, strengthen the muscles and boost breath retention.
Breath is the vehicle of life. It is something we do despite whether we are working, sleeping, eating, driving or exercising. It is a vital function without which we cannot survive. Yoga has given us a few wonderful practices to do with our breath that boost the impact and benefits of breathing the right way. The better we breathe, the better the health of every cell of the body. Oxygen reaches every cell in every organ with better breathing.
Improve your health and well-being by joining a regular live yoga class with a teacher to learn the various breathing practices and how to do them the right way.